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Originally published September 7, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified September 8, 2010 at 11:40 AM

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Cash-strapped Metro targets drivers' pay

After two years of tapping reserves, boosting fares, surviving on federal grants and postponing new routes, King County Metro Transit managers are finally looking behind the wheel for savings.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Metro drivers wages

Number of drivers earning more than $75,000 per year, including overtime:

In 2000

22

In 2009

255

Number of drivers earning more than $100,000, including overtime:

In 2000

0

In 2009

20

Source: King County Metro internal review

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After two years of tapping reserves, boosting fares, surviving on federal grants and postponing new routes, King County Metro Transit managers now are looking behind the wheel for savings.

Metro drivers rank third nationally in wages, with a top rate of $28.47 an hour, and the average yearly income, including overtime, is almost $61,000 a year, according to a Metro review that includes full- and part-time drivers.

Because of cost-of-living raises in the union contract, drivers' pay rose nearly 4 percent each year over the past five years. Union leaders say the growth merely brings drivers back to a reasonable standard of living, after losing ground in the 1990s.

Driver pay has become a touchy issue because the current contract expires Oct. 31, and the county government is seeking to suspend automatic cost-of-living increases.

Paul Bachtel, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, said Tuesday that skipping a 2011 inflation raise is unacceptable, unless the new contract offers substantial raises in later years. He said it would be better to trim routes or cut management.

Other options, Metro says, include layoffs, shorter break times between trips (causing risks of late arrivals) or service cuts, to start in early 2011.

Drivers cannot strike.

So the final contract is likely to be decided through hearings, by an arbitrator, Bachtel said.

In other county departments, Executive Dow Constantine has frozen pay for managers and has praised unions that stopped taking inflation raises.

The Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, in July poured fuel on the fire with a paper that called Metro driver pay "out of control."

Analyst Mike Ennis blamed raises and overtime pay for Metro's failure to deliver most of the new bus service it promised voters in the Transit Now sales-tax measure of 2006 and an earlier measure in 2001.

"While taxpayers and transit users have not received what they were promised, one group has benefited from the two tax increases, public bus drivers," Ennis wrote.

County Council member Larry Phillips, of northwest Seattle, blamed Wall Street and the deep recession for decimating local tax income, so Metro will collect $213 million less than originally planned for 2010-11.

"The world changed in October 2008, and I don't think it was working people who caused it," said Phillips, a transit backer who oversaw recent performance audits. "Why blame the operators for economic Armageddon?"

Meanwhile, bus drivers in Seattle trail only Boston and San Jose, while ranking just ahead of New York and San Francisco in top pay.

It's a good time to be a driver in Washington state, where even smaller agencies pay as well as the biggest U.S. bus agencies in other states. Eight in Washington — including in Everett and Tacoma and at Community Transit in Snohomish County — pay more than the $22.22-per-hour wage in Los Angeles.

Skill and patience

Many drivers are incensed at the claim they're overpaid.

The job requires little formal education, but considerable skill, stamina and patience. Metro had a driver shortage a few years ago.

"I do believe we're worth it," veteran driver Lisa Thompson said, "because we work a lot of crazy hours, there are a lot of things coming at us nonstop from the public, reroutes and traffic. At any given moment you've got to make a lot of decisions, stay calm, not escalate a lot of things, and stay on time."

Operators start as part-timers, guaranteed only 2 ½ hours a day and frequently working split shifts. A new driver typically needs six years to reach top scale.

"Because there was a future, I hung in there. It's sort of an investment," said Thompson, a single mom when she started as a part-time driver in 1995.

Base pay for a top-scale driver is nearly $60,000 a year before overtime. Last year, 255 drivers made more than $75,000, with 20 of those topping $100,000. Metro's highest-paid driver made $115,716 in 2009.

Metro drivers also operate Sound Transit trains and express buses within King County.

Job hazards include back injuries from awkward sitting positions, stress from deadlines, inability to take restroom breaks at will and assault. Driver Katherine Batey, 57, was knocked unconscious by a teenage rider in January on Route 124 in Tukwila and is still unable to work.

The current contract included inflation raises of 3 percent in November 2008, 1 percent in May 2009 and 3 percent in November. Seattle's high housing prices were one argument for higher pay, Bachtel said.

Metro has the nation's seventh-highest bus ridership and the fastest ridership growth in the past decade.

"A lot of people have been asked to work more time, to meet the needs of the system," said Carl Jackson, a streetcar supervisor and union member.

The average pay, including part-timers', rose by 38.5 percent from 2000 to 2009, compared with 25 percent inflation, and now averages $60,806, including overtime, a Metro study says.

Freeze or cuts?

Will there be a wage freeze or even cuts next year?

Jim Jacobson, Metro deputy general manager, won't discuss figures. But he emphasized the driver contracts have given cost-of-living boosts since 1998. Employees also receive "step" increases yearly as they gain experience.

The county did send a letter this summer seeking to forgo inflation raises in 2011, in exchange for preventing layoffs, but the union balked.

Bachtel said Metro isn't like United Airlines, which needed wage concessions to stay in business. "They [drivers] don't expect to give up wages, benefits, working conditions, when the transit agency could cut some of its services, and not take away pay."

Driver wages make up about one-quarter of the agency's $600 million annual spending. Based on 2010 salaries and workloads, each 1 percent increase for drivers would increase Metro's labor costs by more than $1.4 million.

Among the nearly 2,300 drivers, you would expect diverse views.

Thompson said she would rather work fewer hours than see colleagues be laid off.

Full-time driver Alejandro Cumplido said he was glad to survive 2009, when the recession first became a threat.

"If I don't get laid off personally, I'm satisfied," he said while delayed at a crime scene in West Seattle early Saturday. "It would be nice to have a $2 to $3 raise right now, but I'd rather keep my job."

Jeff Welch, a part-time driver who writes Puget Sound Transit Operators Blog, has waged a war of words with the union about overtime. Welch accuses leaders of negotiating contracts that steer extra hours to senior full-timers, while part-timers lack for work.

Bachtel replies there should be growth for both groups — a county audit suggests more overtime, to reduce the expense to hire more full- and part-time employees who receive benefits.

"RapidRide"

Despite the recession, Metro says, it nonetheless will launch its "RapidRide" system of roomier, more frequent express buses in six corridors, while other routes are trimmed.

Metro must show greater financial discipline if it expects elected officials and voters to approve tax-increase proposals for transit, said Bellevue Councilman Grant Degginger, who sits on a transit task force.

That means not only reining in bus-driver costs, but salaries for managers, he said. "Costs for the Metro system generally are higher than the average nationally."

Welch said political rancor hasn't filtered down to the streets, where he said he finds most riders in all parts of town to be polite and thankful.

More than most big-city agencies, Metro focuses its driver hours to serve the most commuters — which translates into irregular shift schedules and hundreds of part-timers who make less than the average pay.

"Especially if they're riding peak hour," Welch said, "They're riding with somebody who is just getting by."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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